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Profiles in Criticism: BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore

Profiles in Criticism: BuzzFeed's Alison Willmore

Alison Willmore and I located each other in the lobby of Park City’s Park City Marriott, a labyrinth of mingling industry insiders,
ticketing booths, snack stalls, and press meetings. Finding a relatively quiet
place to converse was proving impossible, until she spotted some empty couches on
an unoccupied deck outside, and suggested we take a seat there. Given the famously frigid temperatures during Sundance, the external environment
may sound unusual. Then again, as we sank into the cushions and began our chat,
it became increasingly clear that Willmore is not one to be dictated by
convention — one look at her trajectory thus far is proof enough that her career
in criticism has been anything but run-of-the-mill.

An English major in college, Willmore is the first to assert
that her entry into film writing wasn’t particularly planned. Instead, it was triggered
by an application for a position at the IFC network “that didn’t seem that
exciting, except that it was a job and that I needed one,” she recalled. Beginning
by updating their website, she noticed their launch of editorial copy, and
seized the opportunity to pitch her own blog: an initiative with humble
beginnings, but rapid evolution into a full-blown section of industry news,
film reviews, and festival coverage on IFC.com, of which Willmore was made
editor.

A brief stint of freelancing followed, at the Tribeca Film
Institute along with conducting interviews for Movieline, The A.V.
Club, and Time Out New York, immersing her further into the film journalism
community before Indiewire came knocking with an invitation for Willmore to
help launch their TV vertical.

“They were interested in the increasing intersection between
TV and film. I hadn’t done regular TV coverage, but I had worked at a TV
network, so I accepted,” she said. As the sole journalist managing the realm of
television on the site, the job was highly challenging and largely self-taught,
but the demands were far from deterring. Over a year, Willmore built a team and
developed content aimed at the convergence of television and indie movies. Her focus has since shifted back to
film upon beginning her latest position, as the chief movie reviewer for BuzzFeed’s
burgeoning readership. The first position at the site with the word “critic” in
its title
, the job once again gives Willmore the responsibility of forging new editorial ground, be it fresh takes on mainstream
hits or pieces that advocate for smaller, art films.

Miles away from college production courses and pages of
readings on cinematic theory, Willmore’s education in film has, instead, come
by way of diving head first into the opportunities that have come her way as
well as those she has proactively pursued or even created. Moreover, her atypical, yet effective, track is confirmation
that a traditional discipline in film is far from necessary in order to be a
successful film critic — in fact, in writing for consumer audiences, she suggests
that it can occasionally be a burden. “It can take a little while for people to
adjust to writing for non-academics. You see people who are very smart, with
good ideas, unintentionally throw up a wall by turning out writing that is just
too dense. It’s such a valuable background to have, but you have to allow readers
an ‘in.’ You don’t want to make people feel unwelcome.”

Willmore’s own style comes from a place that’s
more personal than pedantic, whether it’s with her refreshingly honest
reactions (she’s unabashed about having “bawled”
more than once in the recent children’s film, “Paddington”) or her relatable
yet strikingly articulate language. “I don’t know who first said this, but all
criticism is a filtered form of autobiography anyway,” she reflected. “You’re
ultimately bringing your opinion and your experiences into your review.”

Her thoughts rang true, though I wondered aloud whether
accessibility can be a double-edged sword; in today’s digital age, where
multitudes of bloggers can now publish reviews as self-titled critics, how do you set yourself apart as a singular voice?

“The main thing I’d say to anyone trying to stand out is not
to become incredibly attached to the traditional form of review that simply breaks
down thoughts on a film’s acting or directing. I just don’t think that’s what
people look for anymore,” Willmore responded.  She also advised straying from the
longstanding, metrics-driven analyses in favor of longer form pieces that make
an argument or identify larger cinematic trends. “Film criticism is an essay,
and should be, before anything else, a compelling read. You don’t have to feel
strongly about a film to have something interesting to write about it. But if
you’re going to write a review these days, it should have a particular point to
make.”

Her zeal was infectious. As a Sundance novice, my festival
experience was proving to be exhilarating and, at times, intimidating.
Willmore’s words were an encouraging send-off, infusing newfound confidence as
I made my way back into the crowds still milling at the Marriott. As she
reminded me as we went our separate ways, “ultimately, there’s nobody who does
this job who doesn’t love it.” Armed with little more than passion and a point
of view, I’d have to wholeheartedly agree.

This article was produced as part of the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism

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